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Soldier pleads guilty in detainees' deaths

Pfc. Corey Clagett, 22, is the third to admit to reduced charges in the May shooting of three unarmed Iraqi men.

January 26, 2007|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

FT. CAMPBELL, KY. — In a monotone, Army Pfc. Corey Clagett confessed his crimes in clinical detail Thursday and said he was profoundly sorry for what he had done.

Wearing a dress green uniform, his eyes downcast, Clagett told a military court that he conspired with two other U.S. soldiers in May to murder three unarmed Iraqi men they had taken prisoner. He shot two of them, he said quietly. He and his comrades staged a phony crime scene, then lied about it all.

In an agreement with prosecutors, Clagett, 22, pleaded guilty to premeditated murder, conspiracy and obstruction of justice. After questioning the boyish airborne infantryman, a military judge sentenced him to 18 years in prison. He will be eligible for parole after serving a little more than five years, his military lawyer said.

"We were gonna kill 'em for no reason," Clagett told the judge, describing how his squad leader convened a meeting during a combat mission May 9 and announced that the three detainees were going to be killed.

"It wasn't an order, just: 'Everybody kill 'em,' " Clagett said.

He is the third of four soldiers charged in the case to plead guilty to reduced charges. Clagett had faced a life sentence without parole if convicted. The plea deal will reduce his rank to private and strip him of pay and benefits.

"My actions made the Army look bad," he told the judge. "It was wrong."

Clagett's admission Thursday was a marked reversal from the vigorous public defense he and his mother had mounted since the soldier was charged last summer. They had said that Clagett's commanders ordered his unit to kill every military-age male they encountered, and they accused the military of betraying a young soldier who risked his life for his country.

Clagett originally told investigators that he shot the detainees after they had broken free and attacked him. But he confessed Thursday that he had lied to "make it look like the detainees tried to escape and give us justification to shoot them."

The murders took place on a marshy island on Tharthar Lake, 60 miles northwest of Baghdad, as Clagett's squad from the 101st Airborne Division attacked what their commanders had described as an Al Qaeda training camp teeming with terrorists. Instead, the soldiers encountered two women, a baby girl and four unarmed Iraqi men.

A 70-year-old man was shot dead as the soldiers assaulted a building during Operation Iron Triangle. Later, Clagett said, he and Spc. William Hunsaker cut plastic handcuffs off the other three men and ordered them to run. As they fled, Clagett said, he shot two of them; Hunsaker shot the third.

Asked by the judge, Col. Theodore Dixon, what he was thinking as he fired, Clagett replied softly: "To kill 'em, your honor."

Hunsaker received an 18-year sentence after pleading guilty this month to premeditated murder, conspiracy and other charges. His plea deal, which required him to testify against Clagett, undermined Clagett's planned defense, his civilian attorney, Paul Bergrin, said after Thursday's hearing.

"We were put into a precarious predicament" by Hunsaker's plea and by a Jan. 18 guilty plea by Spc. Juston Graber, Bergrin said. "It became an indefensible case."

Still, Bergrin told the judge during the hearing: "Corey Clagett believed he was killing known terrorists and saving American lives." Clagett, he said, wrote his family that he expected to be killed on the mission.

Clagett's mother, Melanie Dianiska, fought tears Thursday as she told the judge that her son had helped support her by sending her his Army paychecks. Wearing Clagett's dog tags, she said he and his brother, Jamie, joined the Army the same day in 2004 because Corey "loved what the service stood for."

"He told me he'd give his life for his country," she said.

In an interview last week, Dianiska said she felt betrayed when she learned that Hunsaker and Graber had reached plea deals. "Corey is doomed," she said. "The military has won."

After Thursday's hearing, she said her son told her: "OK, time to start counting down the days."

Graber, who testified that he had followed his squad leader's orders to shoot one of the dying detainees "to put him out of his misery," received a nine-month sentence after pleading guilty to aggravated assault with a dangerous weapon.

The squad leader, Staff Sgt. Raymond Girouard, faces charges of premeditated murder and conspiracy at a court-martial scheduled for March 5.

Clagett testified that Girouard punched him, blurting, "This is out of love," and cut Hunsaker with a knife to buttress their cover story about being attacked by detainees.

In a low, muffled voice, Clagett -- who relatives say has difficulty eating and suffers nightmares -- on Thursday read a poem he'd written. "Now I can never sleep the same," he read. "I only did as I was told to complete my tour."

Asked by the judge whether he meant he was merely following orders when he killed the detainees, Clagett said the poem referred to his Iraq tour in general, not the murders.

The judge also asked Clagett whether there was any "legal justification or excuse" for killing the men.

Clagett raised his head and spoke in a clear voice: "None whatsoever."

david.zucchino@latimes.com

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